MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Remember cassettes? They gave a lot of people their first chance to carry around and record music or anything else for that matter. From mixtapes to kids' violin lessons to early hip-hop releases, cassettes were a cheap way to capture and circulate sonic expression.
Well, here's some good news for those of you waxing nostalgic right now. Cassettes have not gone away.
For the latest in our series on formats, NPR's Neda Ulaby explores today's cassette tape culture.
NEDA ULABY: ...an out-of-business East Los Angeles bar, there's a clubhouse for lovers of experimental media and music.
Unidentified Man: There you go. That's a tape sound.
ULABY: It's called Dublab. It's an artistic collective. Today, their project is an Internet broadcast of DJs playing cassettes.
Unidentified Man: This is Top Tape, a special magnetic music broadcast for your ears. Matthew David is first up on deck.
ULABY: When he's not deejaying, Matthew David runs a micro label. It's called Leaving Records, part of a small but enthusiastic community of people releasing new music on cassette.
Mr. MATTHEW DAVID (Co-Founder, Leaving Records): This is something I recorded yesterday in Topanga Canyon with a friend, to tape.
ULABY: To tape. But why?
Mr. DAVID: It's the most accessible, easiest, cheapest way for anyone to record a piece of audio.
ULABY: OK. It's democratic, and it's do-it-yourself.
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: Anyone can do it, including a pair of 22-year-olds who founded their own tiny tape label a year ago. It's called Kill/Hurt. Its roster is five bands. That includes Cowabunga Babes from Austin, Texas.
(Soundbite of song)
COWABUNGA BABES (Band): (Singing) All my friends are in a band, and we're a band too...
Ms. KATRINA BOUZA (Co-Founder, Kill/Hurt): A lot of our friends, when we first started this - and our family too - laughed at us. They thought it was the most hilarious thing. They said, cassettes?
ULABY: But Katrina Bouza and her boyfriend, Chris Jahnle, say cassettes are the perfect format for the music they like.
Ms. BOUZA: Cassettes and punk music and noise music and underground music, they've always had this kind of symbiotic relationship.
(Soundbite of song)
COWABUNGA BABES: (Singing) (Unintelligible)
ULABY: Cassette tape is trebly. It favors certain frequencies. But that makes it ideal for certain genres - garage rock, freak folk, anything that doesn't depend on high fidelity, where tape's inherent trashiness becomes an intentional effect.
Ms. BOUZA: Vinyl is really nice and crisp and warm, and digital files are, you know, very clean.
ULABY: Tape label boss Katrina Bouza.
Ms. BOUZA: Cassette, the quality of it degrades over time. It's staticky. It's noisy. But a lot of the bands we're putting out, and a lot of bands that are becoming more and more popular in the independent world nowadays are noisy and scratchy.
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: That's one of Kill/Hurt's other bands, Pizza.
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: Cassette's hiss and distortion serves its natural nastiness in a good way. Cassettes now are a gatekeeper in the way some labels used to be for people who like this kind of music and are overwhelmed, wading through the options online.
Mr. CHRIS JAHNLE (Co-Founder, Kill/Hurt): Mainstream act after mainstream act. You have indie act after indie act. There's bigger indie labels, blog bands...
ULABY: Chris Jahnle works in Web development, so he's online all day, every day.
Mr. JAHNLE: After a while, you kind of just like, this stinks, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
ULABY: His cassette label brings him out of the virtual world and into clubs to scope out bands, and it compels him to handle actual things -flipping, inserting, rewinding. Jahnle's Los Feliz apartment is dominated by technology nearly as old as he is.
Mr. JAHNLE: These machines are like - they're like printer-sized, big gray doorstops.
ULABY: Where did you find them?
Mr. JAHNLE: On eBay.
Ms. BOUZA: On eBay. We got a ridiculously good deal.
Mr. JAHNLE: Yeah. I mean, 20 years ago, it's like $3,500 worth of equipment.
ULABY: As opposed to the 200 they spent buying their duplicators and decks. Kill/Hurt's sold about 250 cassettes so far and cleared a couple hundred dollars.
Ms. BOUZA: It's chump change but, you know...
Mr. JAHNLE: Yeah. It's pocket, it's beer money.
Ms. BOUZA: ...we're going to break even.
ULABY: Kill/Hurt sells cassettes with its website, at shows and through little indie boutiques, including Ooga Booga in L.A.'s Chinatown. It's frequented by August Brown, who covers music for the L.A. Times. He says this city is uniquely suited for a new generation of cassette fans to flourish. After all, he says, if you live in L.A. and you're into cassettes...
Mr. AUGUST BROWN (Los Angeles Times): You probably also have some terrible 1989 Honda Accord with, you know, nonfunctioning windows that, you know, happens to have a tape deck.
ULABY: There's something about L.A.'s car culture that lends itself to cassette culture, particularly for artfully scruffy connoisseurs of cool, Brown says.
Mr. BROWN: There's a certain Los Angeles Zen to putting on some massive sun-warped decayed thing while going to the beach.
ULABY: The idea that format says something about community has larger implications, says Mark McNeil of Dublab. His creative crew brings together all aspects of cassette culture - recording new music, finding old music and creating new sounds from old stuff he finds.
Unidentified Man: Oh, man, I've got a million dreams.
Mr. MARK McNEIL (Co-Founder, Dublab): You have this potential of finding some of the most wild one-of-a-kind tapes out there. You're finding home recordings of people, demos, amazing weird hypnosis tapes, people recording lectures, mixtapes.
ULABY: Mixtapes. Cassette culture refuses to lose what mixtapes represent - a handmade personalized aesthetic, a talismanic artifact. For the few people still stubbornly making them, cassettes remain a meaningful way to preserve art.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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